The successful launch of the Boeing Dreamliner this week has highlighted concerns about the amount of toxic air in conventional aircraft cabins.
The new lightweight plane, which is designed to cut fuel costs by 20 per cent, has been hailed as the answer to the problem of contaminated air that scientists claim affects up to 200,000 British passengers each year – known in the industry as aerotoxic syndrome.
Since 1963, all commercial aircraft have used the “bleed air” system, whereby compressed air is drawn through the engines and into the cabin. The air passes through filters that remove bacteria or viruses but do not remove fumes or vapours from the engine – so if there is an oil or hydraulic fuel leak, toxic chemicals can contaminate the air supply.
On its new Dreamliner, Boeing is to pump fresh cabin air from a separate source (away from the engines) for the first time since the Fifties. This had previously been deemed too expensive.
Earlier this year, undercover investigators claimed to have found high levels of a dangerous toxin on several planes using the bleed-air system. Of 31 swab samples taken secretly from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, 28 were found to contain high levels of tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate contained in modern jet oil as an anti-wear additive, which can lead to drowsiness, respiratory problems and neurological illnesses.
Dr Mackenzie Ross, a clinical neuropsychologist at University College London, has claimed that contaminated cabin air may affect up to 200,000 passengers each year. A Telegraph Travel investigation last year disclosed that hundreds of incidents of contaminated air had been reported by British pilots.
Reports linking exposure to contaminated air with long-term harm to health have led to an increase in the number of passengers and crew seeking redress. Earlier this year a former American Airlines attendant, Terry Williams, 40, launched a lawsuit against Boeing over illnesses she claims were caused by toxic fumes.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said that investigations were continuing, but that there was no evidence of a link between cabin air and ill health.
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